Life was teeming along the Red River even before the sun climbed over a bank of clouds one morning in March. In that stretch of the mountain stream right above the craggy gorge and right below the fish hatchery, a few bugs buzzed in the air. A few trout — looking for bugs — rose to the water’s surface and more than a few people — looking for fish — cast flies into the river. Some guys from Questa, clad in jeans, walked downstream from an outfitter with some Oklahoma kids who sleepily pulled on their tan waders. A couple of women were among the bunch.
It wasn’t always so picturesque. Parts of the Red River were, for a long time, essentially dead. In this century, however, citizens, bureaucrats and business owners have teamed up with nonprofits and government agencies to coax the river back to a more natural state, one where fish can grow bigger, live longer and reproduce vigorously.
Some of the improvements to the environment are almost colossal in scope, like the Chevron-led redesign of Eagle Rock Lake. Others, like dropping a boulder in the middle of the river to slow a rushing current, are more subtle.
The latter work — stream improvement, for lack of a more poetic expression — banks on an idea similar to the “butterfly effect,” where little shifts in the environment can have monumental impacts down the road. Maybe that boulder, given time, will work the ecosystem into being a healthy habitat, which in turn will keep locals fishing, visitors coming and keep money flowing so the cultures, communities and economies built up around the Red River will keep rolling like the river itself.
The area around the hatchery has a lot going for it, namely the natural springs, which are the whole reason the fish hatchery is there in the first place. The volume of water in the Red River triples between the hatchery and the confluence with the Río Grande. The water stays between 59 and 62 degrees. Add in the nutrients from the hatchery and the spot is ideal for trout. Add in the rainbow trout stocked in the river and it’s an ideal spot for people, too.
Van Beacham, 59, grandson of the first New Mexico fish hatchery manager and owner of the Solitary Angler, has seen the place change over his life. The molybdenum mine between Questa and Red River was active since before he was born, but its impacts are still present on the landscape.
“Before the mine, this was a nationally known river,” he said.
According to a 1998 report on the Red River watershed, issues with the river’s poor water quality ranged from unnaturally dense forests, acidic runoff from mines and natural formations, septic contamination, too many four-wheelers and abnormal, channelized streams.
A trout can’t really move about, eat or survive without structure to a river. They sit and wait for food to pass by, especially in the “seams” where fast and slow water meet. With no boulders in the river to create stillness, treeless banks or a hardened streambed, water rushes through as if out of the hatch of a dam.
Trout Unlimited, a national nonprofit group, was part of an $800,000 effort to restore parts of the Red River, including the area around and above the hatchery. Like with a lot of big projects, collaboration has been the name of the game. The Red River restoration was a partnership with the state and federal wildlife agencies, the U.S. Forest Service and Questa’s economic development arm, which is funded by Chevron.
Beacham and Tom Harper, a retired lawyer, recent Taos transplant and president of the Enchanted Circle chapter of Trout Unlimited, took The Taos News down to the river to get a firsthand look at what it means to bring the river back “to its former glory,” as Beacham said.
Rock by rock and tree by tree, the physical layout of the river took on a more natural look.
They added in “J hooks,” curved lines of boulders from the bank to the main river channel, that change the velocity and direction of the water so trout have places to hold still, rather than being swept downstream. Single boulders in the middle of the river do similar things, making riffles and deep pockets.
Some sort of improvement was done every few yards because fish — like fishermen — can get territorial.
Below the hatchery, the river gets less tame. “Where it lands, it lands,” Beacham said, explaining that all the diverse habitat that trout need begins with a rock slide and felled trees lodged against boulders worn smooth over the course of centuries. Areas of the river with stream improvements don’t have the same unabashed and wild look, but compared to a lifeless channel, they are a close second.
Restoring a river is no small task. Beyond the money, it takes dedication and lots of people power to sustain the effort. And the work’s not done.
Harper told The Taos News that Trout Unlimited is always looking for “a few good people” to join the organization’s ranks. There’s no need to be a lifelong fisherman or a policy wonk. Like the motley crew on the banks of the Red River that early March morning, outdoor enthusiasts and environmentalists of all shapes and stripes are welcome, as are the folks who simply like to to fish.
Planners have identified another stretch of the Red River to tackle next. When the time comes for the grunt work —the hole digging, tree planting and trash picking — “they can always call on us,” Harper said.
Until then, he’ll be fishing.